Tag Archives: community organizations

What Progressives Must Learn from the ACORN Debacle

By Guest Contributor Rinku Sen originally published at ColorLines.com

If we do our work well, we should expect similar attacks and know that long track records won’t protect us.

I’ve been expecting it for months, but I was still bummed to see the official announcement: ACORN, a decades-old community organizing powerhouse, will be closing its operations permanently as of April 1. As I wrote last year, ACORN has been the subject of a concerted attack by the right and was largely abandoned when liberal supporters, including President Obama and Democratic members of Congress, distanced themselves. But the attack on ACORN isn’t about ACORN alone. It’s an important element of a conservative strategy to discredit the Obama administration, destroy organizing capacity among progressives and quiet voices for real change. They’ve helped shut ACORN’s doors. Now, it’s up to us to make sure the onslaught stops there.

A quick recap. For many years, ACORN has been attacked by conservatives for its massive voter registration program. Accusations of voter fraud during and after the 2008 election were eventually rejected by the courts, but they drew national attention nonetheless, fueled by efforts to link the organization to Barack Obama and by an earlier ACORN embezzlement scandal. Then, conservative activist James O’Keefe–who was arrested recently for plotting to tamper with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s phones–released a video purporting to show ACORN staff advising a pimp and a prostitute on how to get away with tax fraud. The Brooklyn district attorney investigated that incident–in part by simply watching the unedited tape, something news organizations failed to do– and concluded that there was no unlawful activity at ACORN. But it was too late: Congress had already responded to incomplete news stories by banning ACORN from receiving government contracts, including for mortgage counseling and voter registration. A federal judge has ruled that ban unconstitutional, by the way.

I’m not ACORN apologist. The organization had some serious quality-control issues, and hasn’t always played well with others. The embezzlement could have been handled more forthrightly, for example, and in the struggle over Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards stadium project, a number of New York activists charged ACORN with cutting an inadequate deal with developers. I am struck now, though, by the ease with which a 40-year-old stalwart could be taken down with a flimsy, if concerted right-wing smear campaign. Continue reading